Tag Archives: jose marti

What Cubans Won’t Say

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The mainstream media has you hoodwinked. The Beeb, Miami Herald, WSJ, CNN – whatever news profiteer you prefer, they’d have you believe Cubans are cowed, afraid to criticize the powers that be and not willing (or able) to speak truth to that power.

Those who’ve been here know that’s a whole bunch of hooey, another of those myths perpetuated to fit an antiquated paradigm and forward a political and commercial agenda. While media control and social coercion once ruled in Cuba and self-censorship was synonymous with self-preservation, that was then.

These days, Cubans and Habaneros (my specialty) especially, criticize a blue streak and are learning slowly, surely, to speak truth to power through neighborhood and national debates, blogs, publications like Temas and La Calle del Medio, as well as TV shows like Libre Acceso. Sitting here in Havana, trust me when I tell you: the evolution of the revolution is happening folks, whether They like it or not. And people are talking about it.

But there’s one thing Cubans won’t say still. From Abbottabad to Boyeros, Port-au-Prince to Perico, I’ve never heard a Cuban say “can’t.” Simply put, there’s no can’t in Cuba. What more, it’s what has kept the dream alive all these years (see note 1).

In a recent PBS special on Cuban healthcare, an executive at Havana’s Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Center credited the US blockade for Cuba’s ingenuity saying, “it created the challenge for us to try and solve our own problems.” And this is undeniably true in the biotech sector, an industry where patents and inputs controlled by the USA forces Cubans to forge their own solutions – so successfully that today Cuban vaccines, cancer therapies, and generic drugs are among the country’s largest export earners today (see note 2).

In my mind though, the Cuban “can-do” attitude isn’t just due to the blockade; it’s in their blood. Consider José Martí, who organized, fundraised and fought for Cuban independence, only to be shot dead two days into the fracas. Or Fidel Castro’s failed attack on the Moncada Barracks which landed the survivors in jail, not to mention the even more disastrous (and fatal) fight after the Granma landed when only a dozen of 82 survived. As I said, “can’t” isn’t in the Cuban vernacular.

Bay of Pigs?
Yes we can!

Missile Crisis?
Yes we can!

Special Period?
Yes we can (eventually)!

Cubans can invent (and overcome, it seems) anything. Here we call this the ability to ‘resolver.’ These folks can resolve anything and even my mom has taken to saying: ‘It’s Cuba. It can be resolved’ every time I regale her with a new problem or gripe. She doesn’t realize both my husband and I are shitty resolvers.

Not so the guajiro who brought electricity to the clutch of one-room wooden houses in his remote mountain village of Guantánamo by inventing La Cuchufleta. Made from scrap metal and a bicycle wheel, this ingenious contraption sits in a bend in the river where the water flows fast and produces enough juice to power the bare bulbs and sole TV in that previously dark and silent burg.

Then there are the ‘Yank tanks,’ those Detroit dowagers nearly as old as Fidel that are kept together and running with duct tape, wires, and anything else that helps ‘resolver‘ – including a Flintstones vitamin bottle for brake fluid.

McGyver’s got nothing on the Cubans.

One of my favorite Cuban inventions is the rikimbili (see note 3), a motorized bicycle which has grown increasingly rare in Havana unfortunately. They come in different shapes and levels of sophistication, but when you see a bike putt-putt-putting along Calle 100 with a soda bottle strapped to the frame, piss yellow ‘brillante‘ sloshing around inside, you’ve sighted a rikimbili.

Cuban medical missions serving in scores of countries from East Timor to Mali, Bolivia to Botswana couldn’t survive without this inventive ingenuity. I’ve seen it firsthand. In Pakistan, where Cubans were freezing their cojones off during six months of disaster relief, I watched as family doctors constructed a tube of interlocking water bottles from their tent to a trench out back so they could pee without going out into the frigid Kashmir night. My bunkmates, las doctoras, weren’t so fortunate.

In post-quake Haiti, I held a girl’s hand (her only body part not in a cast) as a Cuban orthopedic surgeon adjusted her “traction” – a rope and cinder block invention rigged up at the foot of her bed in the overflowing, fly-infested ward.

Not everything Cubans invent is good however. Recently, a friend was buying veggies at the agro when he spotted a stand piled high with puré. Sold in re-purposed 1.5 liter bottles, this tomato paste is a staple of the Cuban kitchen and an efficient way to dispatch with past-their-prime tomatoes besides. As my amigo spoke to the vendor, he noticed huge sacks of carrots and squash behind the stand. In a wordless exchange (something else Cubans have elevated to an art form) he raised an eyebrow at the sacks and she responded, wordlessly, by pointing her pursed lips in the direction of the bottles. My friend couldn’t figure how the orange root vegetables could be transformed into the bright red paste until he consulted the radio bemba (grapevine): the color was obtained by adding a dash of pulverized brick. Apocryphal? Perhaps. This is Cuba after all.

Good or not so, keep an eye open in Cuba and you’ll discover inventions everywhere. Even after all these years, I’m still learning the extent of ingenuity powering this country. Just last week I was stopped dead in my tracks with a new way to resolver: the 3-legged chair. No stool this, we’re talking a 3-legged chair propped just so.

‘What will they think of next?’ I wondered.

I came across my answer a couple of blocks later: a 2-legged chair, propped against a tree, upon which was seated a none-too-slim parking attendant.

In Cuba, ¡sí, se puede!

Notes

1. The other factor that has kept it alive is the solidarity Cubans extend to each other. Consider this from a blog post listing What Cuban Friends Are Like: “A friend sends you a card and flowers when you’re in the hospital. A Cuban friend stays at the hospital, sitting in a rocking chair at your bedside.”

2. The blockade of Cuba, which is known as a “genocidal policy” here, prevents the island from obtaining badly-needed pharmaceutical products like Sevoflurane (Abbott Laboratories), a general anesthesia for children. Things like this – preventing kids from having anesthetic for imperceptible political gain – gets my Irish way up. It also prevents normal readers like you from traveling to Cuba.

3. There’s a special prize for any reader who can enlighten me as to the origin of this word.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad

Slippery Okra & Sleeping Shrimp: Classic Cubanisms

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One thing I’ve learned my nearly eight years in Havana is that Cubans have a way with words. Many a lass for example (present company included) has been seduced by a poetry-reciting buck borrowing from the likes of Silvio Rodriguez and Cintio Vitier. And who isn’t hip to the oratory artfulness of Fidel, that hypnotist of crowds from New York to Durban?

In fact, Cuba is a country full of semantic artisans willing and able to sprout ‘flowers from their tongues’ as we say here. This oral aptitude is nothing new or novel. Since Martí and the Mambises, Cubans have honed their mesmerizing way with words. This extends to dichos, popular sayings that use metaphor, irony, and double entendre to encapsulate life’s promise, problems, and perversities. Learning a dicho or three in your armchair or actual travels is a simple way to peel away a layer of the Cuban psyche.

An all time classic that has particular relevance during the dog days of summer and other ‘special periods’ is “entre col y col, una lechuga.” Between all that cabbage, a little lettuce is akin to our ‘variety is the spice of life.’ It’s not surprising one of the most popular sayings uses a metaphor based on leafy greens and cruciferous veggies – Cuban psychological hunger runs deep.

Another food-related dicho that anyone who has been to Cuba has likely experienced is: “donde come uno, come dos (o tres),” which means to say: where there’s food for one, there’s food for two (or three). What can be likened to our ‘the more the merrier’ is in fact, the cornerstone of Cuban hospitality (see note 1).

But hands down, my favorite food-related saying here is “pasando gato por liebre.” While ‘passing off cat as rabbit’ may sound like a Chinatown food nightmare, this saying is applied to all sorts of Cuban chicanery, from serving $3 mojitos made with rock gut rum instead of Habana Club to selling Selectos as Cohibas (see note 2). Being agile to this kind of trickery is part and parcel of being Cuban, embodied in another of my preferred sayings: “camarón que se duerme, se la lleva la corriente.” Or ‘you snooze, you lose.’

But enough of all this food and fauna. Let’s talk about sex, another cornerstone of Cubanilla. While there are many dichos referencing carnal undertakings, (and I could dedicate an entire post to piropos, the ingenious and often hilarious come-ons Cubans invent for catching the ear and eye of the opposite sex), my favorite is “quimbombó que rebala, pa’la yuca seca.” Literally this translates as ‘for dry manioc, use slippery okra.’ Hardly the sensuous flowering phrase you’d expect from hot-blooded Cubanos y Cubanas itching to get their groove on. But anyone who’s familiar with okra knows how slippery, slimy it gets if prepared incorrectly. And yucca, from Havana to Asunción, is dry and unappetizing unless gussied up with mojito (see note 3). So while okra is slippery by nature and yucca is dry, get the two together (or more accurately, the body parts for which they serve metaphorically) for erotic results.

Gracias a dios I’ve got no problem where yucca and okra are concerned, but there is one dicho bien Cubano that I’ve yet to internalize. Maybe it’s because I’m a New Yorker or has something to do with being a Scorpio or perhaps it’s just the state of being Conner (god help us!), but I just haven’t been able to master ‘a mal tiempo, buena cara.’ Putting on a good face during bad times just doesn’t seem to be in my make up.

Seems I’ve still got a lot to learn.

Notes

1. According to the expert in everything (that would be my husband), this saying has roots in the Cuban countryside, where hospitality knows no bounds. But it can also be traced to the island’s Haitian community, which arrived on Cuban shores in the early 19th century. Seems Haitians of the time had the custom of setting an extra place at the table, Caribbean Elijah-style.

2. Selectos are the/my five cent cigar of choice, sold in bodegas (where Cubans procure their rations). Many a tourist has been duped into buying what are touted as Cohibas when really they’re just Selecto dirt sticks wearing the signature yellow and black bands of Cuba’s most famous cigar.

3. Visitors sometimes confuse mojito, the minty potent potable, with mojito the garlicky bitter orange-spiked sauce used to dress root vegetables that is as delicious as it is addictive. While plain old manioc yucca is pasty and not-so-tasty, yuca con mojo is irresistible.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad